Authors: John W. Mefford
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Suspense, #Thrillers
“Mrs. Ireland, do you have anything for a throbbing headache?” I pressed the toe of my shoe against her desk leg, while looking through the glass window into Paula’s office. Paula was on the phone.
Being more of a house mom than administrative assistant, Mrs. Ireland relished opportunities to take care of our staff. Usually I avoided her care-giving, but I could tell this headache was going to be special, and I needed help.
She handed me two blue capsules. “Michael, you shouldn’t stress over problems we can’t control. We should all be in the Christmas spirit, but instead we keep getting hit with bad news.”
I didn’t have the patience to open a deeper conversation. “These should do the trick. Thanks.”
As I passed by Paula’s office, she hung up the phone. I took the opportunity to knock and walk in.
“Hey, Michael, there’s no need for further apologies.” Paula held up her hand. “I’m just thankful you hit the brakes and not the gas.” Her sincere smile turned into a wry grin. “In a few weeks, one of our employees might intentionally try to run me down.”
Paula’s sarcasm let me pause and take a breath, allowing me to bring my intensity level down a notch.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m still having a hard time dealing with Reinaldo being arrested right before our eyes,” Paula said.
We walked through the events of the previous day: the jolt of the police detectives flashing their badges, the ripple of the handcuffs tightening on
wrists. He wore the look of guilt and despair: his beefy Brazilian shoulders slumped, his eyes glazed over, and his chin nearly touching his chest. Then there was the entourage—me, Paul, and others—walking in unison, escorting Reinaldo out of our lives and on the path toward a lifetime of imprisonment, possibly execution.
“I have something to show you.” I placed the wrinkled newspaper on Paula’s desk, sliding it around to face her.
“Okay, what has the crack staff at the
come up with now?” She put on her stylish, leopard-rimmed reading glasses.
I showed her the tiny article on the murder. I also gave her the additional information Stu had shared with me—the dispute within the coroner’s office about cause of death.
“Karina has to be devastated by this news,” Paula said. “Here she is, the editor of the paper for, what . . . maybe six months or so? We have this
murder in our own backyard, then Reinaldo is arrested for the crime.” Paula paused to glance at a new email. “We all heard the rumors of… you know.”
I wasn’t sure what she knew, or thought she knew. I played dumb. “Rumors of what?”
“Reinaldo having an…” She turned her head, apparently waiting for me to fill in the blank.”
“Affair. You heard that too?”
“I’m no different than anyone else. I may not know Reinaldo as well as you guys, but I still care about him, and I certainly care about this business and all the lives it impacts.”
It made sense. She had to maintain the big-picture view, understanding how one piece affected the whole. It was reassuring that she didn’t view her employees as robotic assets.
“I wish the police would find out Reinaldo had nothing to do with Tiffany’s murder.” Paula set down her reading glasses and rubbed her tired-looking eyes. “I know you, and you probably wondered within minutes if this kind of news would be enough to scare off PHC.”
I nodded, embarrassed my thoughts could be so transparent. “It did cross my mind. After all, this is a services business, and our competitive advantage is our people. I would think the more that PHC leadership sees their new acquisition creating such bad PR, the deal would look less attractive.”
“Good theory, but I was on the phone with
just before you walked in. He called to reiterate he was still excited about the prospects of J&W. He wasn’t fond of the bad press, but he was focused on closing the deal and discussing future plans.”
Paula twirled her glasses in a circle, while I tapped my thumb against the worn plastic on the arm of my chair.
“Keep this to yourself, but I’m not sure I trust
.” Paula leaned forward. “I’ve heard a lot of reassuring words, and I’ve tried to be the loyal company person. But there’s something about him that seems fake, like he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, and that he’s using us as puppets.”
I was thankful Paula felt comfortable confiding in me. But her distrust in
only added to my unease as the PHC/J&W close date neared.
Marisa took the glass of red wine I poured for her. “Baby, I know you’re going to think I’ve been watching too many
programs, but ever since Jeffrey and William announced they were selling out to that Indian conglomerate, it feels like there’s been a cloud hanging over your company. It’s like we’re all jinxed or something.”
Marisa and I had arrived home at the same time. Needing to calm my nerves, I had unscrewed the cap on one of our six-dollar merlots.
“Shit, it feels like the Wicked Witch of the West has joined forces with the Grim Reaper to cast a spell on everyone associated with the company.” I nearly snorted wine out of my nose laughing at my own joke.
I poured each of us a second glass. Marisa took a sip, then grabbed my arm and tried to drag me toward the door. “I don’t know why we haven’t done this before, baby. We’re going to visit our neighbor.”
I loved when Marisa took control. I downed my second glass as she walked out the door with my coat, waving me on.
Before I could catch up, Marisa had already rung the doorbell four times. “Her car is parked in the driveway, so she’s bound to be home.”
“Maybe it’s broken.”
I’d knocked only once when we heard the deadbolt click. Karina opened the door and turned on the porch light. Over her shoulder, the house was dark.
“Karina, how are you doing? Michael and I have been worried about you.”
Karina wiped her face with both hands. I could tell she was pondering whether to shut the door in our faces or attempt to be social.
“Come on in, guys.” Her weary voice cracked as though those were her first spoken words of the day. She walked slowly and turned on a single lamp, then fell into her pillowed recliner, breathing heavily like she had overexerted herself. “I really don’t have much in the house to offer you. I’ve been working from home today.”
It appeared her work was focused on self-pity.
“How are the kids doing?” I didn’t hear another soul in the house.
“Ricky is upstairs taking a nap. Brent is off at his aunt’s house.” She used the palm of her hand to rub both eyes, her smudged makeup giving her a raccoon-like appearance.
“Karina, how have you been holding up?” Marisa said.
Karina held up a wadded tissue and dabbed her eyes. “I’ve been doing a fair amount of this.”
Used tissues were scattered all over the floor and coffee table. Karina wore navy-blue sweats with a gray T-shirt hanging out from the sweatshirt, which had crusted white spots on each sleeve and the front. Slouching in her chair, she rested her feet on the coffee table. Overstretched, white athletic socks hung from her ankles and two toes popped through a large hole on her right foot.
Marisa put a hand on Karina’s knee. Karina rested her hand on top of Marisa’s and took a deep breath. “Michael, I want to start by saying how sorry I am for being so rude to you in my office the other day.”
“Not a problem. I caught you at a bad time. None of this is easy on you.”
Karina looked away for a moment.
“Reinaldo and I have been…have been going through a difficult time lately.” Karina’s voice quivered. “I…I’ve made some decisions that have hurt people I love.”
Marisa and I traded a quick glance.
What was Karina really saying?
Karina stared into the corner of the room, a blank stare that was void of outward emotion, but her eyes told another story. She seemed lost, or painfully hurt—maybe both.
“On top of everything else, my mom’s sickness flared up, and I had to go to Stillwater.”
“Have you spoken to Reinaldo since he was arrested?” I asked.
“I haven’t talked to him in weeks. Time heals all wounds, but the murder just added salt to mine.” She grabbed another tissue. “When I first heard about the arrest, I wanted to believe Reinaldo wasn’t capable of such a despicable act, especially to an innocent woman like Tiffany.” She began to cry. “Then, I blocked out whether he could have done it, and I just accepted that he did. And, from a journalistic standpoint, that’s the worst thing I could have done.”
I wondered if the rumored marriage issues had anything to do with Tiffany, a beautiful girl who Reinaldo might have found too tempting. But again, what would posses him to murder her? My heart ached for Karina, whose sadness filled the room. I chose not to continue the questioning.
Marisa hugged Karina. I put my hand on Marisa’s back, as both ladies cried. It was obvious Karina was calmed by Marisa’s kindness.
Part of me wanted to ignite a fire inside Karina, hoping her focus on work would break her out of this depression. But her situation was unique—her personal life was emotionally connected to her professional life, in ways I couldn’t possibly fathom.
With Karina’s blessing, I left to see Reinaldo before visitation hours ended for the night. Karina appeared relieved someone was checking on him. In spite of everything, she must care for the guy.
Reinaldo was still being held at the jail inside the city police department. During my interview experience a week earlier, I must have been in a daze, because the scene I was currently viewing wasn’t familiar. To my left, a holding cell housed four people who looked like they would slit your throat if you said hello. A fifty-something, pot-bellied, balding man dressed in khakis and a sweater sat in the corner, peering at the floor.
Two blue uniforms walked by, each grasping the arm of a handcuffed, roughed-up woman. The taller female wore a scowl on her face. She must have been on the losing end of a scuffle. Her blouse was ripped in three places, a bloody trench snaked down the right side of her face and her lip was the size of a slice of watermelon, only blue and purple. The other lady jiggled as she walked with just one heel. Her lack of undergarments was quite apparent with her cut-off, white T-shirt, and her belly hung over her ultra-tight, denim miniskirt.
Three steps past me, the one-heeled lady screamed expletives at the top of her lungs. No one seemed fazed.
Another uniformed officer approached me. “Sir, you can step into this room and have a seat in the first chair on the left. You’ll use the wall phone for communicating. All conversations are recorded.”
I waited ten minutes, staring at what was most likely bulletproof glass that would separate Reinaldo and me during our conversation. The thick divider gave the feeling of a more permanent partition than just one inch of scratched, transparent glass. I sat in a metal chair with a bent leg, forcing me to lean to my right. Goosebumps formed, and I rubbed my arms.
A guard opened the door and positioned Reinaldo in the seat opposite mine.
head hung low. I wasn’t sure how much he would share.
“Hey, Reinaldo.” I spoke into the oversized black phone attached to a bulky metal cord. “I would ask you what you’ve been up to, but you probably haven’t been able to catch the latest
I’d made the mild attempt at humor, hoping to draw some type of response, a faint smile or even a frown to see if this was the same Reinaldo I’d known and worked alongside for so many years. He mumbled hello, then scratched his scraggily face that looked like it hadn’t been shaved in a month, but was probably no more than a few days.
I eyed his bandaged left hand, but chose not to interrogate him. That was up to the cops, if they believed it was warranted.
“I know you may not be in the mood to talk, but a lot of people are worried about you. Everyone at work, Marisa, me…Karina.”
He tilted his head back and licked his lips, then leaned forward. “Karina…”
He hesitated, then his eyes looked away for a brief moment. “How is Karina doing?”
“Honestly, she’s distraught. Marisa is with her now. I think she’s trying to gather enough willpower to get out of bed tomorrow morning.”
I was blunt, more than I’d planned, but it was the truth.
“Oh God, Michael, what the hell has happened to my life?”
It appeared to be a rhetorical question, so I waited. Tears streamed down his face, and he made no attempt to wipe then away.
“I only wanted Karina and me to share our lives, to get old together.” Reinaldo shook his head. “We had it all planned out, our whole lives in front of us. We fell in love while we were in our senior year of college. We thought we were made for each other because we both had the same high-level goal—focus on our careers initially, then Brent and little Ricky came along.”
His emotions brought out his thick Portuguese accent, forcing me to stare at his lips to ensure I understood every word. I wanted to keep Reinaldo talking, hoping he would offer an explanation for all of this craziness.
“No one intends for their lives to be this way. My pop always told me, ‘Life is what happens while you’re planning for it.’”
Reinaldo simply nodded, although I’m not sure he’d heard me.
The guard stepped in to say we had two more minutes before Reinaldo would be taken back to his cell.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me? Anything you want me to do?”
He pondered my question for what seemed like an eternity but was more like twenty seconds.
“Sometimes you do things because…it’s just the right thing to do. I’m no saint, but I didn’t try to hurt anyone.” He scratched his head with both hands and leaned back, his eyes sagging downward. “I deserve whatever I get.”
The guard pulled out
chair, forcing him to hang up his extension. He looked back at me for a few seconds, then turned and was escorted out of the room.
Clouds released a light shower as I opened the door and jumped in my car. The rain pinged the hood of my car, muffling all other noise. Images of the jail flashed through my mind, and I realized my eyes had squeezed together, a surge of tension gripping my neck. I replayed my friend’s comments, even his slight movements, and I couldn’t understand it all. None of it made sense. There was a story there, buried inside, and only he knew what had transpired. He seemed troubled, tormented even—the exact cause I couldn’t discern. But seeing
every movement dictated like he was subhuman, was most disturbing. It showed me how fragile life as we know it can be.